Moses’ Veil

Last year on Parshat Ki Tisa I was in the hospital with my 2 day old daughter. I know Cantor Black led a conversation about the light emanating from Moses’ head and the veil he had to wear after he approached G-d in the Tent of Meeting. This year I want to give my take on this phenomenon.

We learn at the end of the portion that after Moses went down from Mount Sinai, “when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, the skin of his face sent forth beams, and they were afraid to come near him.”[1] Therefore, whenever Moses appeared before Israel he wore a veil on his face, blocking out the beams of light coming from his face after his encounter with G-d.[2]

As the Torah does not have any vowels or punctuation, there are at times different translations. The Hebrew word קרן (kuf-resh-nun) can be understood two different ways: either karan (beam of light), or keren (horn). This created the misinterpretation of Moses as being horned, unfortunately leading to many people believing that Jews have horns. It is also why the famous Michelangelo’s Moses in Rome depicts Moses as having horns. The problem with Moses having horns is why then would he need to wear a veil, a מסוה? A veil could block out light but one would still be able to see the horns protruding from Moses’ head.

The question I’m more interested in is why did Moses have any physical change in his appearance after his encounter with G-d? We have learned earlier in this portion that we cannot see G-d’s face, “for man may not see G-d and live.”[3] Yet even without seeing G-d’s face, by merely being in G-d’s presence at Sinai, Moses’ appearance is altered. Rabbi Ephraim of Luntshitz wrote in his book Kli Yakar that this was actually a symbol of Moses’ greatness in being able to get closer to G-d than any other person. The veil was only worn for Moses’ modesty because he was embarrassed that he received this great gift of radiant light. Before G-d, however, he had no need to be embarrassed so he was required to remove this veil of modesty.[4]

Naftili Tzvi Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, wrote in his book HaEmek D’var that it was actually a blessing to see Moses’ radiant face. The radiance represents the joy, the warmth and the uplifting nature of Moses’ light as the leader of the people of Israel.[5] The Israelites misunderstood the purpose of the radiance: it was to demonstrate G-d’s presence in the world, rather than to single out or embarrass Moses. Instead of being joyous, Israel became afraid by this supernatural emanation of godliness. As a result, the veil was needed.

How do we reconcile Moses’ humility with the fact that he alone had this close encounter with G-d? Rabbi Akiva Eger attempted to do so in his work Meeinah Shel Torah. He wrote that Moses had to go against his nature in order to lead the Israelites. On one hand Moses was “very humble, moreso than any person on the face of the earth.”[6] On the other hand, he was Israel’s intermediary with G-d. Moses therefore wore the veil when around the Israelites to lead the people. He had to mask his true nature of humility in order to effectively lead the Israelite nation. When it was just him and G-d, however, he removed the veil and once again had a humble appearance.

The lesson we should learn from Moses and the veil should be clear now that we just celebrated Purim. Purim above all else is a holiday of masks, where our heroine Esther’s name means להסתיר, to hide oneself, or to hide one’s true identity. To some degree in each of our lives we wear masks, obfuscating our true natures. When it is just us and G-d, however, the masks come off and our true selves are exposed. So it was with Moses our teacher. Through wearing a veil, Moses hid part of his innermost nature. I imagine the veil was opaque and thus people couldn’t see Moses face, and thus look into his eyes, into the depths of his soul. Moses could hide from Israel but when it was just him and G-d his true nature became exposed.

The same is true for us. Each of us hides part of ourselves in our everyday encounters, perhaps even in our relationships with others at the Jericho Jewish Center. We hold onto some of our cards, as we don’t want to expose our true selves, creating vulnerability. When it comes to our personal relationship with G-d, however, our true natures become revealed. I would ask each of us, when we feel safe to do so, to lower our veils a little bit, not to unmask our deepest, darkest secrets but rather to show that we’re human beings, each with similar needs and desires, and that we should not be ashamed of who we are or what we are feeling at any given moment. I would hope that we will not be afraid of our inner natures and that we will feel safe enough at the Jericho Jewish Center to lower the veil and embrace one another in accordance with our true natures. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may we have the willpower to do so.

[1] Exodus 34:30

[2] Exodus 34:33

[3] Exodus 34:30

[4] Kli Yakar, Exodus 34:33 ד”ה ויתן על פניו מסוה

[5] HaEmek Davar, Exodus 34:35, ד”ה כי קרן עור פני משה

[6] Numbers 12:3

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The Meaning of the Mishkan

This is the time of the year when I generally start to see glazed-over eyes during the Torah reading.  For some reason, the Tabernacle, or mishkan, is not the most exciting topic for many, including me.  It seems so remote from our lives, and while an engineer or carpenter might find the details, dimensions and blueprints fascinating, others of us struggle while reading them.  Why so much detail as to each of the items in the Tabernacle?

Parshat Terumah begins by detailing the gifts: precious metals, animal skins and spices that the Israelites must give for the building of this sacred place. The first item described is an ark out of acacia wood, which was known to be a strong, durable form of wood. The ark needed to be overlaid with gold, have a cover made out of gold and have two cherubim angels-one overhanging it at each end. The ark would contain the Ten Commandments, given to Israel directly from G-d at Sinai. Our portion goes on to describe the table, altar, lampstand, curtain and the actual Tabernacle construction itself and its surrounding courtyard.

Why do we spend four or five weeks each and every year reading through this blueprint of our ancestors’ first sacred home for G-d? I would argue that we need to step back in time to the 1960s, when our sacred home, the Jericho Jewish Center, was first created. The first term used to describe the Tabernacle is not mishkan, or dwelling place, but rather mikdash, or sacred place.[1] The goal was to construct a place so ornate, so beautiful, so special, that it would be an appropriate home for G-d to dwell and to for G-d’s Shechinah, the most earthly part of the Divine, to descend from the heavens and rest here on earth. This was not some ordinary building but rather a place fit for the Master of the Universe to reside.

Each synagogue today is considered a mikdash m’at, a miniature sacred place. This does not mean that each synagogue is considered small in size or stature, rather that it contains a small portion of the sanctity and reverence  that was present in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. When both the First and Second Temples were destroyed and our people were scattered throughout the world, we needed a place to go to for connection with G-d, not to replace our holy site but as a substitute for the time we are in exile. Prayer replaced sacrifice as our primary means of communication with G-d and the local synagogue replaced the Temple as G-d’s home, the closest we could get to reaching G-d while here on earth.

We see clear evidence of this when comparing the construction of the Tabernacle to that of our synagogue. We have our Ark which like that of our ancestors holds our most sacred texts. Also, as in our portion we have two coverings for our ark: the kaporet, represented by our ark doors, and the parochet, the curtain inside the ark. In addition, we have a symbolic representation of both the Menorah and the Ner Tamid, an eternal light forever radiating G-d’s presence.

Finally I want to compare the Tabernacle to our Sanctuary. I want you to put yourselves in the mindset of those from your parents and grandparents’ generation who build this room in 1960. What steps do you think they took in constructing this sacred building which we call our spiritual home? How many hours were spent constructing blueprints and diagrams, making sure the layout was perfect? How do you think they felt in all the time from the first planning meeting in someone’s house to the groundbreaking ceremony upon construction of the building to the dedication of the Sanctuary? I imagine it was similar to what we experience every year in reading the Torah portions from Terumah all the way through VaYakhel-Pekudei.

I find it fascinating that our synagogue iconography is modeled after the Tabernacle. As we continue to read through the Torah in this month of March, let us take the opportunity to look deep into the messages of the portions and their significance in our lives.  When our eyes start to glaze over, let us notice something in our beautiful house of worship and may we connect it to the lore and the example of our ancestors, always asking ourselves “What does this mean?” and “How does this relate?”  Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Exodus 25:18